Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Television: The Trap

I watched ‘The Trap’,Adam Curtis' new documentary series on Sunday night on BBC 2 with great expectations, given that his previous efforts, The Century of the Self, which traced the part the Freud family played in the creation of the public relations industry, and The Power of Nightmares, an examination of the intellectual origins of both the Neo-Conservatives and Al-Qaeda, were startling pieces of television.
In this third series of films, Curtis seeks to analyse how the idea of freedom, officially at least, has become so prevalent in modern Western societies. The chief aim of governments in Britain and the United States now is not only to ensure freedom for their own citizens but also to promote the concept, by waging supposed wars of liberation, in Afghanistan and Iraq.
However, Curtis has identified that the foundation of this drive for freedom is premised on a deeply pessimistic view of human nature that assumes humans only ever act in their own self-interest, a theory posited by Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek, above, as a refutation of the post-WWII consensus that governments had to play an active part in the economy for the common good.
From this point of departure, Curtis links the utilisation of game theory by Rand Corporation scientists during the Cold War to the attacks on the family made by psychiatrist R.D. Laing as instances of how the idea of the common or public good was chipped away at in favour of an individualist ethos that assumed people were always essentially ‘out for themselves’. But this championing of the individual did not usher in a new era of freedom, instead systems analysis, whether it was in the diagnosis of psychiatric disorders or the operation of public institutions, became the dominant method of organising how the individual acted in society. The new emphasis in psychiatry on diagnosis by reference to lists of symptoms rather than specific treatment and the introduction of incentives and goals in the British health service were both examples of the contradictory nature of this pursuit of freedom which appeared to accept the ascendancy of the individual while at the same time putting in place ever more rigid systems in which people could live, work and think.
It is only fair to withhold judgement until the final two programmes are broadcast but I felt that Curtis was trying to draw too many disparate strands together and at times I longed for a more straightforward rendering of say the history of economic thought after the Second World War rather than these undoubtedly daring but you sense unsustainable intellectual leaps. Curtis has been praised in the past for his ability to unearth remarkable archive footage for his documentaries but this time the constant jumping from one image to another was distracting and I felt rarely added a whole lot to his thesis.

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